From Bristol to Portugal with two suitcases amid the crisis

Expat interviews
  • Helen and Adrian
Published on 2021-06-04 at 13:00 by Veedushi
Helen is a happy wife and mum of two grown-up children and has always been passionate about travelling. But it's only in 2020 that she could make her dreams come true despite the pandemic. With her husband Adrian, he now lives in the rural countryside of Central Portugal.

Can you please introduce yourself and tell us about your background?

My name is Helen, and I am married to Adrian. I was born in the 70's in Bristol, UK. I left school when I was 16 and started working for a high street bank. After two years of saving, I set off for a backpacking trip around the world and visited Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the USA, Australia and New Zealand. I think this was the start of my love for foreign countries and experiencing different cultures. Before moving to Portugal, I worked in education settings for over 15 years, supporting students with special educational needs. My career was challenging at times but very rewarding. I am also a fully qualified Holistic Therapist and mum to Josh (27) and Teanna (18). I was lucky enough to be able to give up my job when I left the UK and be a lady of leisure in Portugal. I started a blog to help people who are thinking about moving to Portugal but also for friends and family members to catch up with what we are up to. It's a realistic blog on my experiences (good and bad) with added humour along the way: Casavalhal.com

You've been passionate about travelling since very young. To how many countries have you travelled and what has been your best experience so far? 

I haven't actually visited that many countries, maybe around 20. I would have loved to travel more but becoming a single teenage mum restricted my options and travel dreams for a while. I am very passionate about travel, especially off the beaten track to less touristy areas. My best experience so far is a close call between New Zealand and Las Vegas. I adore New Zealand as it's so diverse, has stunning mountains, beaches and hot springs. It has a lot of history and Māori culture. Vegas will always hold a special place in my heart as it's where we got married. I especially enjoyed hiking around the Grand Canyon, which has always been a firm favourite on my bucket list. Vegas is so much more than gambling, partying and alcohol. 

What attracted you to Portugal? For how long have you been there? 

We relocated to Portugal in January 2020. After several holidays to Portugal, we absolutely fell in love with the country for many reasons, including the glorious sunny weather, affordable housing and cost of living is far cheaper than the UK, it is one of the safest countries in the world to live in, the culture and people are so friendly and welcoming, the food and drink are amazing, the landscapes and breathtaking scenery are some of the best I have ever seen, we have the most epic panoramic views from our mountain house, I never get bored of looking at them or watching the sunset listening to the stream and birds chirping away. There is so much to see and do in Portugal. We have so many beautiful attractions close to our home, such as the Serra da Estrela mountains (tallest mountain in mainland Portugal and where it snows in winter so you can ski) and the epic Fraga da Pena waterfall with its paradise pools is just a few minutes drive away. 

My favourite places to visit in the summer months are the river beaches. There are so many to choose from. Autumn and winter times are perfect for exploring Portugal's National and Natural Parks, and there are some great forests too for hiking and don't forget the wild swimming. I also enjoy visiting the historic archaeological treasures: bridges, castles, palaces, towers, cathedrals, churches, monasteries and canals. We purchased a schist house which is located in the Serra do Açor mountain region, and we love to immerse ourselves in nature and go running, hiking, cycling and try various different water sports like kayaking, surfing and paddleboarding. Due to the glorious weather, we can spend many months of the year outside. I adore the peace and tranquillity, the true sense of privacy, and the only traffic jam we get stuck in is a farmer herding their sheep or goats. It's like stepping back in time and completely different from village life in the UK.

What made you want to leave the UK?

I was at a point in my life where I just needed a change and something for me. My life was very limited, like groundhog day. I would go to work, visit the gym, eat, sleep, then repeat. I would work hard all year just to enjoy a two-week vacation and was permanently exhausted with no quality of life. My health started to deteriorate, and my stress levels were through the roof. My children are grown up, and with my youngest heading off to university, it just seemed like the right time. My mum passed away six years ago, and she was my absolute world. I am not that close with my remaining family so I had no real reason or links to stay in Bristol. My mum died young before she reached retirement age and never got the chance to enjoy her later years. Life is too short, so I want to experience new things and enjoy life while I can, as who knows how long we have left on this earth. 

With Brexit looming, we thought we should start our search as the future after Brexit was unknown at the time. We did consider buying a house in BristoI, but that would have meant that we put a large deposit down then have a mortgage for the next 20 years. The alternative was to buy a house outright here in Portugal for cash with no mortgage, and I could give up work in my mid-forties, so it was an easy decision. We saved up for eight years and made many sacrifices, but it was well worth it. I handed in my notice at work, and we also handed in our tenancy notice on our little rented flat, and our journey began. We sold all our furniture and gave away 90% of our belongings to charity which was scary but very liberating. Then we jumped on a plane with two suitcases and a bike.

The pandemic struck soon after your arrival in Portugal. How did you cope with this situation? 

When we left the UK for our Portuguese adventure, I never imagined that we would be confined to our house in a state of emergency within weeks of arriving and experiencing a worldwide pandemic. I assumed Brexit was all we had to deal with; I was wrong. I thought we would be exploring the local beaches and beauty spots, spending long weekends in cafes chatting to the locals, developing our language skills and making friends for life. The Portuguese are very social people, and due to the climate, a lot of community activities are held outdoors. It was a worrying time, but we are fortunate as Adrian still managed to keep his job when others were furloughed, and I had so many DIY and gardening tasks to keep me occupied for months. The main negative was not being able to see my children. Flights were cancelled, and travel was only permitted for work, essential travel and residents of Portugal. We feel very lucky as the lockdown did not impact us greatly, and we have a lovely garden with beautiful picturesque views. We often reflect on how different our life would have been if we had stayed in Bristol. Living in a tiny flat with no garden and limited space with us both trying to work from home would certainly have been challenging. I think we timed our relocation perfectly. I often wake up in the morning and feel very blessed indeed. Apart from Covid delaying stuff, we really are living the dream in a beautiful house in the rural countryside of Central Portugal.

What were the major challenges you've had so far in Portugal, and how did you overcome them?

My main challenge has been learning the language. I started a language app on my phone whilst in the UK but did not bother too much as I thought I could learn the language out here, and I was too busy with work and life. Language can be such a barrier and frustrating at times when you are lost in translation. I highly recommend that you learn the language beforehand if you can. Especially if you are planning to move in say two years, you have time. It's honestly my biggest regret. We currently attend 3 hours of Portuguese language lessons per week at a local school. I am determined to master this beautiful language or at least be able to hold a conversation.

Did you find it hard to adapt to Portugal?

We adapted to life in Portugal very easily. The biggest change for me was always going to be giving up work. I have worked since the age of 16, so becoming a lady of leisure was always going to be strange. My husband works Monday-Friday, long hours remotely. I underestimated how many renovation jobs around the house need two people or are very demanding physical jobs that I struggle with by myself. I have a few health issues which can affect my progress—saying that I have kept to my plan of doing a task a day which is a fantastic achievement. The only negative aspect is that due to Covid, we could not get out and about and meet the locals in our community and attend festivals and celebrations, which has hindered us from making friendships and learning the language. 

How do you feel now that some restrictions have been eased? Have you been able to make any new friends?

Even with Covid curfews, restrictions and cancelled flights, we both still feel blessed every single day. My aim was to build a life that I don't need a vacation from, and I feel that I have met my goal. There are so many beautiful areas of Portugal I want to explore when Covid is a distant memory. At present, it's all about finding a balance between Adrian's work, renovating our house together and visiting safe, quiet secluded areas to have some fun.

With restrictions slowly easing, we have started to plan some epic day trips. We also recently got an invite to meet another couple in their home. Our first invite in 17 months! It was a lovely evening with tasty Portuguese wine and snacks, and the company was fantastic. I can't wait to meet more people and make some lifelong friendships here.

Have you felt like returning to the UK amid all this? Is there anything you miss from your home country?

Returning to the UK has not been an option for us. I miss my children so much, but safety comes first. I was devastated when my children's flights were cancelled at Christmas with only two days notice, and it is heartbreaking to hear my children upset at the end of a phone or video chat when I just want to give them a hug, but safety is paramount. Hopefully, my daughter will be visiting this summer during her university summer holidays. 

What if you had to go through this all over again?

I don't think I would change anything except for learning the language before relocating. I extensively planned for six months prior to leaving the UK, so had good knowledge of the processes and procedures relating to residency and other paperwork such as exchanging our driving licences, filing a joint tax return, obtaining NIF and NHR status, opening a bank account, registering for doctors, buying a car, insurance and making a Portuguese will.

Is there any advice you would like to give to anyone who's looking to relocate to Portugal?

Do your research. Holidays are not the same as living here permanently. If you are buying a property, make sure you explore different areas and get a good solicitor. Having a realistic budget and a regular source of income is key. If you are buying a property, explore the option of a Promissory contract for peace of mind. For those of you who have only been on holiday to the Algarve, I strongly recommend that you return one day and explore the delights of Central Portugal and cities such as Coimbra, Porto and Lisbon. If you have time, divert off to some of the less touristy places and enjoy Portugal away from the crowds. Take a wrong turn and get lost, it's so much fun. Central Portugal is so lush and green, and it's very affordable too. 

If I have learnt anything from the pandemic, it is “Don't take anything for granted." It's been a challenging time for everyone, and I know we will all look back on 2020 and confirm it was a crazy year. We are lucky as we personally did not lose anyone we love, and all our family and friends are safe. I have mixed feelings about 2020, and this year will stay in my memory for years to come, not only because of Covid and Brexit but because this was the year we packed our lives into two suitcases and ventured off to Portugal to start a new life in the sun. We jumped on a plane full of excitement and enthusiasm, not knowing what the future would hold.

2020 has taught me to have hope, patience, to stay strong and healthy but also to seize the moment and make new memories. Don't wait and put all your dreams on hold until retirement. Grab the bull by the horns and make things happen. Live life to the max, enjoy the ride and laugh every day. Plan big future events to look forward to but also treasure the small daily stuff like gardening with the sun on your face, going for a winter hike amongst nature with your soul mate. Make an abundance of memories to bring a smile to your face and others. Try new things and experiences, learn a new skill, push your limits. You may surprise yourself. Step out of your comfort zone and, most importantly, do whatever makes you happy. 

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